1900-20 – The birth of an era

From its first inception in the 1830s, P&O spent many decades building a business out of mail services and trade routes. By 1904, the shipping giant made its first step into the world of pleasure cruising. They transformed old mail boats into luxurious vessels for the wealthy upper classes to travel to far and exotic locations.

“Every Britisher and Imperialist is proud of the Peninsular and Oriental Navigation Company. We feel it is part of the British Constitution.”

– J. Henniker Heaton, 1913. Reproduced by kind permission of P&O Heritage.

People on board a P&O ship in the 1900s

Niki Groom (@miss_magpie_spy), who has worked in the fashion industry for over 15 years and runs the illustrated blog Miss Magpie Fashion Spy, took a deeper look into what life would have looked like on board a P&O ship at the time:

The period of time from 1900 to the start of the First World War in 1914 is known as The Golden Age of sea travel. Passenger ships were increasingly extravagant, incredibly spacious, and for many, the place to be seen. This in turn called for a fashionable and functional wardrobe, suitable for all weathers and occasions.

Some of the liners, such as Peninsular & Oriental’s ‘Vectis’, only offered first class travel. It launched its glamorous pleasure cruises in 1904 and took in exotic destinations such as Egypt, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Syria. Others sold first, second and third class tickets. Third class passengers were still of a certain social standing, and so were suitably attired for their time on the ocean waves.

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At the turn of the century Britain was under the new rule of Edward VII (followed in 1910 by George V) and this heralded a slow but dynamic change in women’s fashion. The restrictive corsets and large bustles of Victorian times softened and the S-curve silhouette was born. These new undergarments lowered the bustline, encouraged the hips back and gave the look of a pigeon with its breast puffed out.  

Over these corsets women would wear wool walking suits or fussy high necked lace blouses with fluted hem skirts – perfect for spending time on the deck with a parasol during the day. Evening events demanded decadent dresses made of the finest fabrics. Beaded silk tunic dresses, velvet wrap styles and empire gowns covered in lace and flowers. Men wore three piece lounge suits with narrow jackets and high lapels, topped with cloth caps a bowler hat or a Homburg during the day. For dinner they were required to wear a black tailcoat and trousers, and a silk top hat.

Click on the images above to see typical menus from the era

Fashion worked at a much slower pace then than it does now. Although the middle and working classes were often a year or two behind the very rich (due to lack of affordable fast fashion) they still looked modern, as trends lasted for years not months. As an example, the fashion for women to wear very large decorated hats continued for over ten years. Hats were required to be worn by all classes during the day, regardless of their social standing. Some were simple, but for wealthier women they featured valuable trims such as ribbons, flowers, bows and in some cases, stuffed birds.

To travel by sea was a lifestyle in itself and was as much about the journey as it was the harbour stops on the way. Many read books or wrote in their diaries in the daytime, and would socialise and attend lavish parties in the evening. On some ships there was a gymnasium or music room, or facilities for golf and tennis. There is evidence of passengers taking part in races, obstacle courses and ship games on deck too.

The elite travelled first class and experienced the very best in modern hospitality.  Dining rooms were decadent and luxe, afternoon tea was often observed and time on deck could require anything from a wool coat to the need for a fan. It was also necessary during this period of time for women to be wearing gloves at all times, and as these often got dirty they were changed frequently. As a result, first class female travellers changed their outfits as much as four times daily. This meant huge trunks by designers such as Louis Vuitton were bought on board, containing the many garments and accessories required.’

Fashion of the era by Niki Groom

The health benefits of travelling by sea was a strong pull for many, and the idea of travelling for pleasure took upper-class Britain by storm. But while they may have been lured in by the romantic depictions of far-flung lands, life on deck was all a part of the adventure.

‘…we had some excellent athletic sports. Tugs of war for the ladies and gentlemen, cockfights, donkey races, in this race the jockey having to drink a glass of water with a teaspoon, the donkey to eat a dry ship’s biscuit, both being fed by one of the ladies, the winner having to show his mouth perfectly clear-very awkward for the donkey.’

– Edward Rawdin on board VECTIS, 1905. Reproduced by kind permission of P&O Heritage.

Tug of war on a P&O ferry

During the First World War over half of the P&O fleet was requisitioned. When peace returned, P&O was set to become the largest shipping company in the world…

All images © P&O Heritage Collection, used by kind permission.


Ahead to 1920-40